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Granted, Illinois State baseball coach Mark Kingston would prefer to see his Redbirds atop the Missouri Valley Conference instead of tied for fourth.

Yet Kingston declines to categorize ISU’s 8-7 conference record a disappointment entering a weekend series against Southern Illinois that begins with a 3 p.m. game today at Abe Martin Field in Carbondale.

“When you’re in a league as competitive as this one is, there are going to be times you lose some games you thought you should have won,” Kingston said. “There are five teams within two games of each other. That’s continued proof the Missouri Valley is a very good baseball league in 2011.”

The Redbirds (29-15 overall) tied Wichita State for the regular-season championship last season and were the preseason favorites to repeat.

“I wouldn’t say disappointed. But I would say we’re not where we hoped to be,” said third baseman Ryan Court. “We’re still very much in the chase.”

Creighton leads the Valley at 10-5 and Wichita State is second at 9-6. Missouri State is third at 8-6 with Southern and ISU both at 8-7.

“It has a lot to do with who is engaged in the process, who has their eyes on the championship and not summer ball,” Kingston said. “It will be which teams are mentally and physically tough down the stretch.”

The Redbirds have been held to three runs or less in six of their seven conference defeats.

“You’ve got to give credit to them (opposing pitchers),” Court said.

And the ISU pitchers deserve some credit as well. The Redbirds’ team ERA of 3.30 is best in the MVC.

Senior Corey Maines (8-2, 2.75 ERA) starts on the hill for ISU today. Freshman Dan Savas (3-4, 4.08) gets the nod in Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest and sophomore J.D. Learnard (6-2, 3.88) takes the mound in Sunday’s 1 p.m. game.

ISU’s next win would give the Redbirds back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since 1998-99.

Salukis better in MVC: Southern has won just 10 of 32 nonconference games and is the lone MVC team with an under-.500 record at 18-29.

The Salukis are led by starter Cody Forsythe, who tops the league with a 1.98 ERA. Outfielders Jordan Sivertson and Chris Murphy are the only over .300 hitters at .311 each.

Lincoln native Wes Neece is batting .277, while former Fieldcrest High School pitcher Lee Weld is sidelined for the season with a torn labrum.

Ken Henderson is serving as Southern’s interim head coach. Dan Callahan, the Salukis’ coach for the previous 16 seasons, died of cancer on Nov. 15 at the age of 52.

Around the Valley: Creighton has moved into TD Ameritrade Park this season and the Bluejays’ attendance is booming. A game earlier this week against Nebraska drew 17,588. The average crowd for nine home games is 9,127.

TD Ameritrade Park is the site of this season’s Valley Tournament May 24-28.

The May 3 update of the RPI rankings includes five teams from the Valley. Creighton is listed highest at No. 46. ISU checks in at No. 72.

Wichita State pitcher Charlie Lowell is 7-0 with a 1.18 ERA in seven home starts.

Bradley won its 100th game at O’Brien Field last Sunday. The Braves are 100-81 at the stadium they share with the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League.

Randy Reinhardt can be reached at rreinhardt@pantagraph.com

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